- Musical Aesthetics: An Introduction to Concepts, Theories, and Functions by Jonathan L. Friedmann
If we define musical aesthetics as the study of what makes music interesting to us, the discipline is inherently hybrid and interdisciplinary. Around a traditional core that is roughly coextensive with philosophy of music (minus on-tology), the web of its interdisciplinary connections has in the past three decades been growing to dimensions that are becoming hard to master in a lifetime. Empirical research into music perception and appraisal has started to address questions of musical behavior and appreciation that go beyond psychoacoustics, developing into a true psychology of music. Neurological studies of what happens in the brain offer increasingly detailed evidence of the specific and nonspecific domains of our musical and other abilities. Most important, maybe, is the replacement of the human subject as an abstract or ideal entity with a biologically based view of human nature, a renewed interest in human universals, and consequently a clearer perspective on the force and limits of cultural determinations.
Musicologists have moved along, seeking new ways of demonstrating the interconnectedness of music with individual and social behavior. Philosophers of music (or some of them) have freed themselves of the autonomouswork-of-music paradigm and are exploring issues of meaning and response that were formerly out of bounds. In this respect, contemporary aesthetics involves a partial return to its original, eighteenth-century conception, which closely associated aesthetics with psychology and anthropology, as these were then understood. This flourishing of the sciences of mind has been accompanied by a somewhat too generous outpouring of books in the popular "why music matters" genre. Like the [End Page 595] scientific work upon which these are based, they tend to pay but little attention to philosophical aesthetics. This is regrettable, because the practice of science unavoidably involves conceptual distinctions and assumptions that often remain hidden and which philosophers, particularly in the analytical tradition, have made it their job to expose and scrutinize. It would be quite useful, therefore, to have an accessible, concise introduction to the broad field of musical aesthetics that is both philosophically sophisticated and scientifically up to date.
That ideal description unfortunately does not apply to the book under review. Jonathan Friedmann, a cantor and professor of Jewish music history at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, gives evidence of a considerable dose of curiosity, enthusiasm, and wide-ranging erudition. That his Musical Aesthetics fails to meet even more modest demands is due, in part, to the fact that these qualities are not matched with solid scholarship and philosophical competence. But above all, the book simply is not what its subtitle suggests it is: "an introduction to concepts, theories, and functions."
The six chapter headings (relating aesthetics to emotions, listening, performance, composition, nature, and commerce) suggest a broad and thematically unified treatment. But each chapter falls apart in a series of unconnected mini-essays of one or two pages that individually and together fail to explore any subject in a coherent way. I soon got the feeling that I was scrolling through a blog, and this turned out to be correct: all the samples I have checked have been previously published in the author's blog Thinking on Music (https://thinkingonmusic.wordpress.com [accessed 8 October 2019]).
It is regrettable that Friedmann is not fully honest about the book's online origin, and the explanation he offers for his approach strikes me as facile. Admitting that the book "will not satisfy all readers," he faults past and future critics for their failure to appreciate "the necessity of short-form academic writing in our fast-paced world of information overload" (p. 7). I can gladly acknowledge the virtues of academic blogging without conceding that a haphazard collection of sketches can serve as an introductory textbook.
For readers who are willing to take the book for what it is, an essayistic blog in printed form, a full table of contents might have been welcome. As it is, they...